Psychedelic vehicles


Further: the second version of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankster bus.

The word psychedelic, like surreal before it, slipped from its original meaning through appropriation. Humphrey Osmond’s neologism was first coined in drug-related correspondence with Aldous Huxley in 1957 and was specifically intended to describe the “mind-manifesting” quality of the hallucinogenic drug experience. The drug-inspired art and music which came after the experiments of the Fifties quickly assumed a gaudy and chaotic aspect derived from the intense visual abstractions of LSD trips. Huxley in The Doors of Perception (1954) rejected these fractal visions as trivial and distracting—he was more concerned with the deeper spiritual revelations—but a new way of seeing in a new era required a new label. Art and design which is vivid, florid, multi-hued and quite often incoherent is where the term psychedelic is most commonly applied today.

Of the three vehicles here, only Ken Kesey’s bus can be regarded as psychedelic in Osmond’s sense, this being the renovated school bus which travelled the United States in the mid-Sixties dispensing free LSD to those it met along the way. These events were recounted in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and the creators of last year’s Milk, Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black, have a film in preparation based on Wolfe’s book. Milk was a film about gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, and Ang Lee (director of Brokeback Mountain) has a new film of his own due shortly, Taking Woodstock, which concerns Elliot Tiber, the gay organizer of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. Both stories bracket the psychedelic era. Is this coincidence or do I detect something in the air? But I digress….


For the chaotic and decorative nature of the psychedelic style, look no further (so to speak) than Janis Joplin’s 1965 Porsche. I saw this in 2005 at Tate Liverpool when it was touring with the Summer of Love exhibition of psychedelic art. One of  Joplin’s very last recordings before her death in 1970 was a birthday song for John Lennon so it’s perhaps fitting that the third vehicle here is Lennon’s lavish Rolls-Royce. His 1965 limousine came originally in black livery but two years later he decided he wanted it painted like a gypsy caravan. There’s a great page about the car here including details of its decoration, created in consultation with Marijke Koger of Dutch design group The Fool.


In a small way these three vehicles encapsulate the psychedelic period, from optimistic, proselytising origins following the revelations of hallucinogenic drugs to decline into a mannered, highly-commercialised graphic style. Ken Kesey died in 2001 but his second bus is still active while the cars are now museum pieces. Perhaps the real psychedelic spirit prevails after all.

See also: George Harrison’s Mini Cooper

Previously on { feuilleton }
Dutch psychedelia
The art of LSD

11 thoughts on “Psychedelic vehicles”

  1. I was lucky enough to attend Ken Kesey’s performance at the Liverpool Royal Court Theatre back in August 1999. Apart from the impressive show itself, which incorporated spoken word stuff, a short play, stories and songs (including a haunting arrangement of the W.B. Yeats poem ‘Stolen Child’), outside the venue was parked the second bus, which had just been to visit the Magical Mystery Tour coach at the Beatles Museum. To be confronted that sunny evening not just with Ken and his family, but with a still-functioning mechanical icon of the counterculture, albeit a reproduction of the original, was truly mind-blowing. Luckily I managed to get a few photos of the event.

    I was interested in your comment about the different fates of the three vehicles. It strikes me that Janis Joplin’s Porsche could still be driving around today given the right owner. Seeing it at the Summer of Love show I was struck by how roadworthy it appeared, a car one could imagine driving out of the gallery at the end of the exhibition, whereas the Lennon Rolls always struck me as a piece of ostentatious nonsense (I’ve always had my doubts about Lennon as a human being). However well-preserved it may be I’d rather drive Janis’s car any day. The motif of the crocodile skin peeling back to flowers, clouds, butterflies and ultimately the car itself is more truly psychedelic than Lennon’s rather humdrum carnival art decoration. Whoops! As a scouser I’m supposed to worship at the altar of Lennon aren’t I?

  2. The comment about the cars was more about their present status as museum pieces, I’m sure both are quite roadworthy. Ken Kesey rejected the Smithsonian’s offer to preserve the original bus, he let it rot away in a wood instead. Lennon’s car is like an early version of the blinged-out limo which has become common in recent years. He had a TV, phone and fridge installed and the back seat converted into a double bed.

    There’s some nice photos of Janis’s Porsche in the exhibition catalogue, they give a better idea of the paint job than pics I could find online. The artwork is a lot more imaginative than the Rolls. It was strange for me going to that exhibition since I’d been in California a few days earlier. I went up to Petaluma with Arthur editor Jay Babcock to visit artist David Singer whose poster art was featured in the exhibition. Wandering around a very gloomy Liverpool after being in the LA sunshine was rather depressing!

  3. Wouldnt it be great if all cars looked like this instead of the ugly silver boxes they all really are……wow…..No, wait! Imagine if we all got about in huge psychedelic airships instead….we could rain love down on all the world and it would be groovy.

  4. Mike: I rather like that eye in a triangle, actually. It’s a lot better than some other appropriations I’ve seen of my Hawkwind art. I included a close-up of the picture it’s borrowed from in an earlier post.

    Lord Cornelius Plum: I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realise that your nick is borrowed from the mighty Dukes of Stratosphear. I’ve been considering a post about them for some time, watch this space. And yes, this is one of many aspects of the psych era which was quickly abandoned as the world returned to its former drabness. In the future there may be paint jobs which can be modified according to the driver’s desires (although the police would probably hate that). We’ll see.

  5. Yes, its from the Dukes, but i always imagined lord cornelius plum to be a cross between Jerry Cornelius and Brian Jones, with maybe a bit of Turner from Performance thrown in (who himself was based on brian jones).

  6. And Turner’s band in Performance–according to a brief glimpse of a poster–is Turner’s Purple Orchestra, which is a very typical psych name. They should have been on one of the Rubble albums along with The Orange Seaweed, Felius Andromeda and the rest.

  7. I was once in a band called the Plastic Zenith,who would have recorded our first album, the legendary”Those Idiots From Earth”, if any of us could actually have played an instrument or wrote songs or had ideas….we would have been a dead cert for the rubble albums if we hadnt been 25 years too late….and talentless..

  8. I was also in a band for a while (about a year or so) called The Deoxyribonucleic Acid 23rd-Angström Bonding Irregularities. Playing bass and synth, or trying to. Long, turgid jams à la Hawkwind and various Krautrock groups. We were too Seventies for Rubble, I think.

  9. Thanks, Masha. I’ve seen some of those Pakistani vehicles before, I think. The Japanese truck reminds me of one of the few good things about growing up in Blackpool, namely the illuminated trams they wheel out every year.

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